Archive for June, 2012

Celebrate Canada Day with colonial-era pictures

Saturday, June 30th, 2012

The UK National Archives have uploaded hundreds of pictures of colonial-era Canada just in time for Canada Day. On July 1, 1867, the British North America Act (known in Canada as the Constitution Act since 1982) united the colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the Province of Canada into a federal dominion of four provinces. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick remained the same; the Province of Canada was divided into Ontario and Quebec.

The new Confederation would retain the monarch as head of state, but would have a self-governing bicameral parliamentary system and, most appealing to Britain, it would fund its own defense. The removal of British troops and new political distance from Britain would help improve relations with Canada’s grumpy neighbor to the south which was nursing fresh grudges over Britain’s support for the Confederacy in the Civil War, and which would spend the rest of the century gobbling up new territory in the name of Manifest Destiny.

The pictures come from the Colonial Office’s Photographic Collection. There are 12 sets of pictures, from a collection taken during the Prince of Wales’ (the future Edward VIII who abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson) 1919 tour of Canada, to regional collections depicting grand natural vistas and the minutiae of daily life. You’ll find some of the first photographs ever taken of Canada in the 1850s buried in the sets, along with classic 1960s advertising from the National Film Board of Canada. You’ll also find a lot of First Nations misery documented, and some unpleasant period terminology like “half breed.”

The Newfoundland and Labrador set captures fishing villages from the late 19th century, including a remarkable 1892 panorama of French fishing rooms in Cape Rouge Harbour. Fishing rooms were waterfront locations where all the facilities necessary to trap, process, salt and store the catch (mainly cod) were built, along with dwellings for the workers and their families.

Panorama of French fishing rooms, Cape Rouge Harbour

There are also some fascinating diagrams of the equipment they used and ground plans for factories, homes, and warehouses.

Chippewa Wigwams & Grave on one of the Islands in the Lake of the Woods, 1876The Canadian Border set documents the expedition to map the boundary between Canada and the United States from 1872 to 1876. It was a joint project by participants from the United States Northern Boundary Commission, Royal Engineers from the British North American Boundary Commission, Canadian First Nations and Native American scouts, scientists, astronomers, cartographers, soldiers, ambulance teams, ox and mule teams and the teamsters that drove them. 75-ton floating crane lifting locomotive, Montreal, 1911The pictures convey how isolated this longest continuous boundary between two countries was even decades after it was formally drawn at the 49th parallel.

To go from that set to the industry of 1910s Quebec, or to the urban residences and dawning consumer gadget era documented in the Domestic architecture, 1920s set, or to the 1890s canal cuts and 1920s wheat fields of Alberta is like hopping through alternate dimensions.

Happy Canada Day!

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Stolen rare 415-year-old atlas returned to Sweden

Friday, June 29th, 2012

Royal Library map librarian Greger Bergvall holds Wytfliet Atlas at New York press conference WednesdayA rare copy of Cornelius van Wytfliet’s Atlas of the New World stolen from Sweden’s Royal Library a decade ago was officially returned during a news conference in New York City Wednesday.

"Descriptionis Ptolemaicae Augmentum sive Occidentis Notitia Brevi commentario illustrata Studio et opera Cornely Wytfliet Louaniensis"Published in 1597, the Descriptionis Ptolemaicae Augmentum was the first atlas documenting the geography and natural history of the Americas. Belgian cartographer Wytfliet used the writings of geographers José de Acosta and Giovanni Battista Ramusio, among others, to create 19 exceptionally accurate maps of South America, Central America, North America and the Caribbean, among them the first regional map of California ever printed. The book is one of only nine complete copies known to survive.

"Bayou Sacra, Luisiana," lithograph by Henry LewisIt was stolen by the former head of the library’s manuscript department, Anders Burius, who from the day he was hired in 1995 began to help himself to rare volumes which he would then sell to German auction house Ketterer Kunst. He managed to steal 56 books worth millions of dollars before the thefts were discovered in the spring of 2004. Over time he had gotten careless in his efforts to cover his tracks, so when a Royal Library staffer began searching for a copy of Das Illustrirte Mississippithal, a book of lithographs of the Mississippi River by American artist Henry Lewis published in Dusseldorf, Germany in 1858, she found a single remaining reference proving that the volume had once been in the library even though it had been removed from all the other indices, catalogues and inventories.

Atlantic coast of North America in Wytfliet AtlasRealizing that only an insider could have removed the book and almost all references to it, the library began a quiet but thorough investigation. They found other books were missing, all of them valuable. In November, they determined that only Burius had the physical access and in-depth knowledge to consistently pick the books with the highest current market values. Management confronted him and he admitted to being the thief. He hoped the library would keep things quiet and settle the matter internally, but of course they called the police.

On November 7, 2004, Anders Burius was arrested. While in jail he wrote a detailed list of all the books he had stolen from the Royal Library. A subsequent investigation found that he had stolen dozens of books from other libraries starting as early as 1986. He was no collector; he sold them to support his lifestyle of Armani suits, Cuban cigars and Mercedes Benzes. He would steal the books, remove any references to them in the library records, and erase the library marks from the books with a pencil eraser. Then he would sell them in Germany as Charles Fields from Denmark. (John Charles Fields was the Canadian mathematician who founded the Fields Medal, viz. Good Will Hunting.)

The closest Ketterer Kunst got to due diligence was to check for the library stamps he had removed and to make Burius sign a document attesting to his legal ownership of the books. They didn’t even check to see if there was such a person as Charles Fields in Denmark. They just paid him in cash and everyone went on their merry way.

Burius' Stockholm apartment building after the explosionThree weeks after his arrest, Burius’ wife filed for divorce. On December 3rd, the police released him pending a court date. Early in the morning of December 8th, he dragged a mattress into his kitchen, cut the gas tube leading to his oven, then lay down on his mattress and slit his wrists. A random spark from his refrigerator thermostat ignited the gas, setting off a massive explosion which blew out the walls, injured 11 people and forced the evacuation of 44 of his neighbors.

Burius’ body was found under the rubble of his apartment four days later. The medical examiner was unable to determine if he died in the explosion or from the gas or wrist-slitting. Thankfully, nobody else was killed in his last act of reckless selfishness.

World map in Wytfliet AtlasThe case was huge news in Sweden, but because the investigation was ongoing, the Royal Library didn’t publish the complete list of stolen books; so dealers and auction houses all over the world were still selling the purloined volumes, unaware of their origins. Wytfliet’s Atlas had been on the market for years and passed through several hands before a Royal Library librarian spotted it in 2011 for sale by New York map dealer W. Graham Arader III of Arader Galleries. Arader, a colorful character who in addition to being a highly successful dealer in antique maps and natural history prints has also been instrumental in helping authorities arrest several thieving dealers and collectors, had bought it from Sotheby’s London in 2003.

The Royal Library and Arader determined that it was the stolen copy, so he returned it to Sotheby’s and got his money back. Sotheby’s in turn decided to give the book back to the library. They sent it to New York for the return ceremony where representatives from the Royal Library reclaimed the first of Burius’ stolen treasures. They have now published a complete list of the stolen books (pdf) and registered it with booksellers and Interpol. They are cautiously optimistic that more of the books will be found now.

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Chaplin’s notes for Nijinsky film found in Bologna

Thursday, June 28th, 2012

Recently discovered picture of Chaplin and Keaton on the Limelight setResearchers at the Cineteca di Bologna have discovered a previously unknown manuscript in Charlie Chaplin’s own hand outlining a film about legendary Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. The film was never made, but elements of it were included in Limelight, one of Chaplin’s last films, which featured his only on-screen appearance with that other great luminary of silent picture comedy, Buster Keaton. Four unpublished pictures of Keaton and Chaplin working together on the Limelight set were also discovered.

The Cineteca di Bologna is the custodian of the Charlie Chaplin Archive, an immense collection of Chaplin’s personal and professional documents. For years they’ve been cataloging and digitizing the paper documents and restoring the films in accordance with the wishes of Chaplin’s heirs. They found the manuscript while researching Limelight, appropriately enough, and will announce the find today at their Cinema Ritrovato (Rediscovered Film) festival in Bologna.

You can see the entire manuscript, complete with Chaplin’s strike-throughs and margin notes, in pdf form here. Click here to read the pdf transcript.

Chaplin manuscript, page oneChaplin manuscript, page twoChaplin manuscript, page threeChaplin manuscript, page four

Nijinsky met Charlie Chaplin in 1917 during the Ballets Russes dance company’s second and last tour of the United States. Nijinsky hadn’t participated in the first tour in 1916 because company director Sergei Diaghilev had fired him in 1913, furious that Nijinsky, his sometime lover, had married Hungarian countess, groupie and wannabe dancer Romola de Pulszky while on tour in South America, far from Diaghilev’s controlling oversight.

When war broke out in August 1914, Nijinsky, the missus and their newborn daughter were staying in Pulszky’s mother’s house in Budapest. There they stayed for the next two years, under house arrest as enemy noncombatants due to Nijinsky’s Russian citizenship. He was only released because the American promoter of the Ballets Russes’ second US tour stipulated that Nijinsky had to be part of the company, so Diaghilev pulled some strings, enlisting the intervention of Spanish King Alfonso XIII to secure permission for Nijinsky to leave Hungary for New York in September of 1916.

Nijinsky was by all accounts in poor form during the tour. He was out of practice from two years of house arrest and showing early signs of the schizophrenia that would end his career in 1919. He was convinced that the other dancers had it in for him, that they would leave a trap door open on stage for him to fall through. The tour was a financial and artistic disaster. The Ballets Russes never toured the US again.

In the middle of this turbulence, the company visited Chaplin on the set of Easy Street, a classic two-reel film co-starring Edna Purveyance from Chaplin’s productive and lucrative time under contract with Mutual Film. In 1916, Chaplin and Mutual had agreed to a yearly salary of $670,000, making him the highest paid entertainer in the world. They built him a studio of his own and gave him complete artistic freedom. Chaplin was at the peak of his powers when he met the great dancer at the nadir of his.

Twenty years later, Chaplin would write a treatment for a movie about Nijinsky, “the great genious of the Russian ballet,” whose insecurities make him come across as something of a brute, but who is a kind, generous spirit who in secret financially supports the drunken old dancer who almost injured him on stage. From the newly-discovered manuscript:

The theme of the play is that a career is not the fulfillment of man’s desires, but only a road leading to his destiny. Naginsky was inarticulate, sensitive and shy with a funny passion and an imagination that launched his soul, because he had only one means of expressing himself. [...]

Characters: Naginsky, His Wife, Degaloff, an Old Friend, Dresser, Old Dancer
Action and the Intention Ballet to show the genius as a dancer. To show his relationship with the members of the company. To show how he intercedes with Degaloff on behalf of one of the members of the cast. To show his sense of justice. To show his loyalty to an old member of the cast who has been drinking because he is too old to dance. To show the old member making a mistake while the ballet is performing. This mistake almost causes N to injure himself and he heaps a tirade of abuses at the old man until he discovers that the old chap is suffering from rheumatism. Then he suggests that the old man should take a rest. The old man is afraid to because he cannot afford the expense of a hospital or the chance of losing his job. When D refuses to pay the old man’s expenses for a two weeks’ rest, N tells him that he will pay it and that he D can deduct the money from his salary. Naginsky But for heaven’s sake, do not tell the old fellow that I am paying the bills. The fool will be too proud to accept it.

Limelight posterIt’s the character of the old washed-up alcoholic performer whom Chaplin would reuse in Limelight, which was filmed in 1952, 15 years after Chaplin wrote the Nijinsky treatment. At the time, Chaplin insisted it would be his last film (it wasn’t; he made two more after that), so that young actor in his prime who had met Nijinsky in his decline was now in the waning days of his own stellar career.

Also, Buster Keaton was in dire straits himself when Chaplin hired him for Limelight. He had been financially devastated by a divorce and hadn’t been getting much work. The part was a small one, too small, Chaplin originally thought, for an actor of Keaton’s caliber. When he heard that Keaton had fallen on hard times, he insisted on casting the legend and gave him free rein to create his own routine in their shared scene, something that Chaplin never did.

So the unfilmed Nijinsky manuscript turns out to have several parallels with Chaplin’s later life and work. Chaplin plays the old drunk now, only he’s the one giving a down-on-his-luck colleague a hand in a respectful way. It’s a wheel-has-come-full-circle moment.

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Confirmed:Capitoline Wolf is Medieval, not Etruscan

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

The Capitoline Wolf, she doesn't look a day over 1000The bronze sculpture of a she-wolf nursing the infants Romulus and Remus that is the star of tourist stall t-shirts all over Rome is not the masterpiece of Etruscan metalwork it has been reputed to be since the 18th century. The latest radiocarbon dating performed on organic residue from the casting process confirms that La Lupa, iconic symbol of Rome, was made in the 11th or 12th century, not the 5th or 6th century B.C.

The early history of the wolf is nebulous. It’s possible that she’s a copy of a genuine antique piece that once stood guard in front of the Lateran Palace, but that’s speculation based on descriptions of such a sculpture going back as far as the 10th century. The Capitoline Wolf we know today enters the historical record in 1471 when Pope Sixtus IV donated it and several genuine ancient bronzes to the Roman people. They were moved to Palazzo Dei Conservatori on the Capitoline, and would form the core of the new Capitoline Museum collection. It appears that the twins, probably the work of Florentine Old Master Antonio Pollaiolo, were added to the she-wolf around this time.

1960 Rome Olympics logoThere’s no controversy surrounding the Renaissance dating of Romulus and Remus, but the wolf’s symbolic power and sculptural quality has invested it with antiquity, whether it be Etruscan, Italian Greek or Roman. It was Johann Joachim Winckelmann, a German art historian, archaeologist and pioneer in the study of Greek, Etruscan and Greco-Roman art, who classified the wolf as Etruscan in his 1764 masterpiece The History of Art in Antiquity. According to Winckelmann, the curls and textures of the she-wolf’s pelt marked her as Etruscan; see the Chimera of Arezzo, a genuine 5th century B.C. Etruscan sculpture, for an example of that style.

Although other scholars contested Winckelmann’s classification and suggested far later production dates, the Capitoline Wolf’s ancient origin, be it Etruscan, Roman or Greek, was popularly assumed to be true until 1996 when art historian Anna Maria Carruba was assigned to restore the bronze. She was the first person allowed to fully examine the sculpture in detail, and she found that it was cast in one complete piece using the lost wax method. The ancients cast bronze sculptures in pieces and then fused them together. This method allowed them to make more elaborate pieces with no risk of total failure. Single-piece casting was a medieval technique, used to produce objects like bells and cannon that needed a reliably rigid structure to function properly.

Roman politicians weren’t thrilled with this discovery. It took years of discussion before scientific dating of the she-wolf was allowed, then more years before the results were published.

“The new dating ranges between 1021 and 1153,” said Lucio Calcagnile, who carried out radiocarbon tests at the University of Salento’s Center for Dating and Diagnostics.

Using accelerator mass spectrometry, the researchers extracted, analyzed and radiocarbon dated organic samples from the casting process. The results revealed with an accuracy of 95.4 percent that the sculpture was crafted between the 11th and 12th century AD.

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Huge Celtic coin hoard found on Jersey after 30 years

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

Celtic coins from massive hoard found on Jersey, ca. 50 B.C.After 30 years of searching one particular field on the Channel Island of Jersey, metal detectorists Reg Mead and Richard Miles have found an enormous hoard of Roman and Celtic coins from approximately 50 B.C. Archaeologists have excavated it from the clay in a solid block measuring 55 x 31.5 x 8 inches and weighing three quarters of a ton. The block contains an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 coins, for a possible total market value of $5-16 million (£3-10 million).

Mead’s and Miles’ epic quest began after a woman told them that her father had found some ancient coins when he removed a hedgerow from a field. The coins had been buried in an earthenware pot which shattered when the plant was uprooted, scattering silver coins all over the place. Father and daughter collected the coins in a small potato sack, then ploughed under the remains of the pot and other assorted debris. She described the coins to them and they recognized them as Iron Age coins from when the Brittany Celts lived on Jersey.

She didn’t remember exactly where the discovery was made, just the general area, and the current owner of the field farmed it actively so he would only allow them to search during a brief window after harvest. For 30 years, they searched the field during that brief window, a total of maybe 15 hours of work each year. When time was up, they had to wait until the next year’s crop was in to try again.

60 coins found in FebruaryIn February of this year, they found something: 60 Celtic coins, 59 of them silver and one of them gold. After three decades coming up empty, those 60 coins signaled that they might have finally found the location the farmer’s daughter had told them about so long ago. They dug down deeper and found a large solid object. Reg Mead dug up a chunk of earth from the top and found five or six silver coins.

They immediately stopped what they were doing and reported the find and location to Jersey Heritage. Jersey Heritage sent staff archaeologists to explore the find and enlisted the aid of Robert Waterhouse from the Société Jersiaise, Dr. Philip de Jersey, Celtic coin expert and States of Guernsey archaeologist, plus volunteers including the finders, the farmer who owns the land and their family members.

Solid block of coins excavated from the fieldJersey Heritage’s curator of archaeology Olga Finch said: “This is an incredibly important archaeological find of international significance.

“The fact that it has been excavated archaeologically is also rare and will greatly enhance the level of information we can glean about the people who buried it.

“It is an amazing contribution to the study of Celtic coins. We already have a number of very important Iron Age coin hoards found in the island, but this new addition will make Jersey a magnet for Celtic coin researchers. It reinforces just how special Jersey’s archaeology is.”

Dr. de Jersey agrees, noting that coin specialists often spend their lives researching their field by looking at pictures in books or at artifacts behind glass in museum exhibits. Getting the chance to excavate coins in situ is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

The finders and landowner would like to see the hoard exhibited in Jersey, but the question of who owns it and is entitled to reimbursement of its value is up in the air. Jersey is a self-governing Crown Dependency, and has been since 1204 when King John lost all his lands in Normandy to French King Philip II Augustus but was allowed to keep the Channel Islands.

[Reg Mead] said: “We have declared this hoard as the trove, treasure trove, which was an ancient law that gave you, if within a reasonable amount of time you declared them, the full monetary value. We are testing that case because the powers that be have said the practice of trove doesn’t exist in Jersey any more.”

Mr Mead said it was the first important find with metal detectors ever in Jersey.

He said: “There are two laws, in Jersey anyone who wants to follow the law can use the English or the old French. If they don’t like the practice of trove then the old French law is finders keepers. Richard, myself and the land owner have an agreement between us, we are entitled to that hoard.”

Neil Mahrer from Jersey Heritage excavates the blockIt will take researchers a long time to excavate all the individual coins from the block and the estimated numbers may change like they have with the Beau Street Hoard, but it’s likely this will prove to be the largest Iron Age hoard ever discovered on Jersey. Before this, the largest find was more than 11,000 coins discovered in 1935 at La Marquanderie.

Most of the hoards found in Jersey have been coins from the Coriosolite tribe, a Celtic tribe from what is now Brittany on the northwestern coast of France. First century B.C. hoards are the most common because the populations were under pressure from Julius Caesar’s legions. Caesar describes his encounters with the coastal tribes of the area he called Armorica in The Gallic Wars. The Coriosolite, aka Curiosolite, aka the Curiosolitae are first mentioned in Book 2, Chapter 34 as one of the maritime states that surrendered to his delegate, Publius Licinius Crassus (son of Marcus Licinius Crassus, one of the richest men in history, famed for his brutal defeat of Spartacus and for joining Caesar and Pompey in the First Triumvirate) in 57 B.C.

Armorican tribes in Brittany; Jersey is the big island closest to the coastThat surrender didn’t take. A year later, the Veneti, the most prominent of the Armorican tribes, along with their Armorican neighbors captured some of Caesar’s officers to exchange them for hostages the Romans had taken. Caesar had to muster all the considerable engineering talents of the Roman army to fight the Veneti in their well-defended strongholds. When they fled to the sea, Caesar had his troops build ships, but they couldn’t compete with the locals’ heavy navy and sailing expertise in the treacherous waters of the Channel and Atlantic.

He did it in the end, though. He destroyed the Veneti fleet using giant billhooks to sever the lines used to hoist the mainsails. With the sails on the deck, the Celtic ships were entirely out of commission. They couldn’t even row because the huge sails cloaked the deck. Caesar then went from coastal town to coastal town and killed everyone. Those he didn’t kill he sold into slavery. The few who managed to get away fled to nearby Jersey and/or went on to Britain, hence the preponderance of Coriosolite hoards discovered in Brittany and Jersey.

The Daily Mail article has the best pictures of the hoard. The BBC has video of the excavation and crane lifting out the block.

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Anglo-Saxon woman found buried with cow

Monday, June 25th, 2012

Anglo-Saxon lady and her cow, late 5th centuryAn Anglo-Saxon woman was found buried with a cow in a late 5th century cemetery in Oakington, outside of Cambridge. Anglo-Saxon warriors have been known to be buried with their horses, but this is the first time a woman has been found buried with a domestic animal. In fact, when the animal bones were first excavated, archaeologists assumed it was a horse because they’d already unearthed two other graves in the cemetery of men buried with their horses. They were excited to find a horse buried with a woman because all 31 of the horse burials discovered in Britain are of men. When they realized the animal bones belonged to a cow, their excitement hit the roof. It’s the first cow burial ever found in Europe.

Cows were of enormous value to a community. They were a precious source of meat and dairy which cost a great deal to feed and keep healthy. One cow could make the difference between a community surviving or dying of starvation. Burying the cow would have been an enormous loss for the community to suffer. The woman buried with the cow, therefore, must have been an extremely important person to warrant such a valuable gravemate, especially this early in Anglo-Saxon society.

Copper broaches, beads found buried with high-status woman (and cow)Her high status is confirmed by the rich adornments found on her body. Grave goods include copper alloy brooches, three necklaces and hundreds of amber and glass beads.

“She also had a complete chatelaine [keychain] set, which is an iron girdle and a symbol of her high status,” [University of Central Lancashire's Dr. Duncan] Sayer said.

“It indicates she had access to the community’s wealth.

“She is almost certainly a regional elite – a matriarchal figure buried with the objects that describe her identity to the people who attended her funeral.”

A team of archaeologists from Manchester Metropolitan University, the University of Central Lancashire, Oxford Archaeology East and some undergraduate history students from MMU are excavating the Oakington site. It was one of the MMU students — Kate Smith, 19 — who first discovered the woman’s grave. The team has thus far discovered 100 graves, and they estimate there are another 50-60 graves in the cemetery. The dig will continue for another three weeks, but even if they stopped today it would still be one of the most important Anglo-Saxon sites in the country.

For more about the excavation and to keep abreast of anything else they discover, see the Oakington dig Facebook page or follow them on Twitter @oakingtondig.

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A tale of Etruscan loot from Italy to Ohio and back

Sunday, June 24th, 2012

Dionysus kalpis, attributed to the Micali Painter, 510-500 B.C.The Toledo Museum of Art has owned the Etruscan black-figure kalpis, a large ceramic vase used for holding water, for 30 years, the last 11 of them while under investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations division (HSI) and the Italian government. Despite evidence that the kalpis had been looted, smuggled and sold to the museum with (poorly) forged documentation, the Toledo institution fought the law, holding out longer than wealthier and more prestigious museums like the Getty and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Now the law has finally won, and still kicking and screaming, the Toledo Museum of Art has grumpily agreed to return the vase to Italy.

This sordid tale of beauty, greed, lust, deception, fraud and willful blindness begins at the end of the 6th century B.C., around 510-500 B.C., in the Etruscan city-state of Vulci. Vulci was an important political and artistic center 50 miles northwest of Rome, famous as the birthplace of the legendary sixth king of Rome, Servius Tullius (reigned 578-535 B.C.), and as the likely location for the workshop of an artist known to us today solely as the Micali Painter.

The Micali Painter made black-figure pottery, a style imported from Greece in the 7th century B.C. Figures are painted with a clay slip on fresh clay vessels. When fired, the painted areas turn black and contrast with the native red of the clay. Micali was the most prolific Etruscan artist of the genre, and he made the style his own rather than just copying Greek artists. His work is in the world’s top museums.

Vulci was defeated by Roman consul Tiberius Coruncanius in 280 B.C. Rome cut off Vulci’s access to the sea and, cut off from the maritime trade that had sustained it, the city declined and died. No new town was built over it. All that is left of Vulci today are some ruins and a massive underground necropolis with tens of thousands of tombs; many of them remain unrecorded and unexplored.

Etruscan Tomb of the Inscriptions, VulciThat makes Vulci prime territory for the depredations of the tombaroli, tomb robbers who stick spikes in the ground searching for undocumented tombs. When they find one, they strip it of everything they find, from vases to jewels to the frescoes on the wall and mosaics on the floor. Often they destroy the tomb itself on the way out to cover up their tracks. They then sell the treasures they’ve ripped from the ground to middlemen and “art dealers” like the infamous Giacomo Medici for ridiculously small sums. Just to give you an idea of what I’m talking about, the tombarolo who in the mid-1970s looted the Asteas krater, a large red-figure vase used for mixing water and wine painted with the Rape of Europa in the 4th century B.C. by Greek master Asteas, sold it for $1,533 and a suckling pig. True story. The dealers who bought it from him sold it to the Getty in 1981 for $275,000. The Getty was forced to return the krater to Italy in 2005.

Sometime before 1981, tombaroli found a black-figure Etruscan kalpis by the Micali Painter depicting a scene from the life of Dionysus wherein the god of wine and drama punishes the pirates who try to kidnap him for ransom or to sell him into slavery by turning them into dolphins as they dive into the sea to flee his wrath, a story immortalized in a Homeric hymn. It’s a unique and beautiful piece. It’s more than 20 inches in height and has three handles. The pirates are captured mid-transformation, with the legs of men but the heads and fins of dolphins and with the tails and fins of dolphins but the heads of men. The tombaroli sold the water jug to Giacomo Medici, who in turn sold it to dealers Gianfranco and Ursula Becchina.

In 1982, the Becchinas sold it to the Toledo Museum of Art for a modest price of $90,000. The only documentation they provided the museum of the kalpis’ collection history prior to their purchase of it was a photocopy of a declaration signed by deceased Swiss collector Karl Haug claiming decades of ownership. The Becchinas said they purchased the vessel from Haug’s son who provided them with the document ostensibly written by his father.

In two paragraphs typed in German on the stationery of the Haug-owned Hotel Helvetia in Basel, Switzerland, Haug stated to whom it may concern that he had owned the vessel since 1935, conveniently preceding the passage of the 1939 Italian law declaring all antiquities property of the Italian state unless the possessor can prove ownership prior to 1902. Still, even that made-up date was well after a 1909 law that required all antiquities to be declared to customs for proper licensing and taxation. Haug made no such declaration, so even if it were true that he had bought it in 1935, it still would have been illegally smuggled out of the country.

Whatever rudimentary due diligence Toledo did to confirm that the photocopy of the typewritten “Swiss collector” claim wasn’t a blatant and obvious fraud, it didn’t extend to checking with the Italian authorities for evidence of legal export. You’d think that would be step one, unless, of course, looking the other way was standard operating practice for museums at this time. (Spoiler: it was.) Besides, the Metropolitan Museum of Art also wanted the vase, and Toledo wanted badly to beat them to the punch.

Asteas krater, stolen and sold for $1500 and a suckling pigOf course Haug’s story wasn’t true at all. It wasn’t even written by Haug. The facade began to crack in 1995 when a warehouse in Freeport, Switzerland owned by Giacomo Medici was raided by the Italian Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale unit (a.k.a., the Art Police), as well as Swiss and British police forces. They found thousands of artifacts, some of them still encrusted with dirt from their recent excavation, plus files and Polaroids documenting past sales. One of the Polaroids was of an Etruscan three-handled black-figure kalpis depicting Dionysus turning the Tyrrhenian pirates into dolphins. The kalpis in the picture was muddy, as was the picture itself. Now, I don’t know exactly what model of Polaroid took that picture, but it was certainly produced long after 1935.

Medici was formally arrested in 1997 and the slow wheels of Italian justice began to grind their way towards a trial. Meanwhile, in 2000 the Toledo Museum of Art, still fearing no legal repercussions, sent the kalpis to Venice so it could be a part of the seminal exhibit of Etruscan artifacts at the Palazzo Grassi. “Gli Etruschi” ran from November 2000 to July 2001 and was a smash hit, exhibiting an unprecedented vast collection of Etruscan objects loaned from museums all over Italy and the world. The vase was still on display in Venice when the Museum received a subpoena in 2001 from the assistant U.S. Attorney in Toledo asking for its documentation of the kalpis.

Doubtless fearing that Italy, which had initiated the U.S. Attorney’s investigation, might confiscate the kalpis while it was still on Italian soil, the museum sent a registrar to Venice to bring it back pronto. Thus began the decade-long battle.

More evidence of the looting, smuggling and fraud was discovered when the contents of the Becchinas’ warehouses in Basel were seized by the Swiss police on February 23, 2002. Again they found thousands of artifacts, photographs and documents exposing decades of theft barely covered up by half-assed forgeries like the Haug document. In the Becchina archives was yet another Polaroid of the kalpis, caked in mud from its recent excavation. There were also stacks of blank documents on Hotel Helvetia letterhead, rubber-stamped and ready to be filled in with whatever “Swiss private collection” fantasy the Becchinas wished to concoct.

In 2004 Giacomo Medici was convicted on multiple counts of receiving stolen archaeological artifacts illegally removed from Italy. One of those archaeological artifacts he was convicted of fencing was the Dionysus kalpis. Confronted with a legal decision from an Italian court that the vase had been looted and smuggled out of Italy at most a few years before the museum’s purchase of it, the Toledo museum director said that if the object had been stolen they’d return it. They just wanted a little more proof, is all.

The Polaroids, the paper trail in the Becchina archives, even Ursula’s confession to how they routinely forged Haug collection histories using rubber-stamped blanks were not apparently sufficient. A single flimsy photocopy of Haug’s so-called statement was more than sufficient proof of legitimacy for them to buy the piece, but piles of evidence accumulated over years of painstaking investigation and even a conviction in a court of law weren’t enough to convince them their precious was ill-gotten gain. They would keep dancing this “more evidence” dance for another seven years.

In April 2010, Immigration and Customs Enforcement sent an agent to the museum to yet again discuss the return of the kalpis. Between November 2010 and January of 2012, ICE three times warned the museum that if they wouldn’t hand over the vase, agents would have to confiscate it. Museum director Brian Kennedy told the Toledo Blade these were “threats” and that it felt like the museum was the victim of a “drug bust.” They kept holding out for more proof, for more time to establish a cultural exchange with Italy (meaning they wanted Italy to give them something else on long-term loan to fill the hole in their collection the kalpis would leave).

Finally in March of this year, the Toledo Museum of Art was satisfied that they had been provided sufficient evidence of what everyone has known for a decade. They agreed to return the kalpis. On June 7, United States Homeland Security Investigations “constructively seized” the vase (you can read their case filed in district court here), allowing it to stay on the museum premises for security reasons until a formal return ceremony later in the year. The U.S. Attorney’s Office and ICE released statements applauding “the integrity of the Toledo Museum of Art for their willingness to ensure that this piece is repatriated to its home country” and claiming this long, strange ride as “an example of our office, ICE HSI and the Toledo Museum of Art working collaboratively to return this artifact to its rightful place,” statements which look a little silly given the museum’s sour grapes in the Toledo Blade article from four days ago, but oh well. At least the kalpis is finally on the way home.

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Roman jewelry found in ancient Japanese tomb

Saturday, June 23rd, 2012

Two glass beads that bear the characteristics of Roman craftsmanship have been found in a 5th century tomb in Nagaoka, near Kyoto in southern Japan.

Roman glass jewel found in 5th century tomb in Nagaoka, Japan Roman glass jewel found in 5th century tomb in Nagaoka, Japan

The tiny five-millimeter (0.2 inch) beads date to between the 1st and the 4th century A.D. and were made with natron, a naturally occurring chemical that was widely used in ancient Egypt for everything from brushing teeth to mummification. The Romans added it to sand and lime to make ceramics and glass. The process fell out of use in the 7th century A.D.

The beads, which have a hole through the middle, were made with a multilayering technique — a relatively sophisticated method in which craftsmen piled up layers of glass, often sandwiching gold leaf in between.

“They are one of the oldest multilayered glass products found in Japan, and very rare accessories that were believed to be made in the Roman Empire and sent to Japan,” said Tomomi Tamura, a researcher at the [Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties].

The “sent to Japan” part is questionable (a translation issue, perhaps?). There was no direct trade between Rome and Japan. As early as the 1st century A.D., the complex of trading networks on sea and land that are known today as the Silk Road ran from Europe through Africa, Arabia, Persia, India, China, and Korea to Japan and back again. Traders did local legs of the massive voyage, stopping at market cities to sell their goods which would then be traded again a little further away and so on, until silk from China wound up adorning Roman emperors and Roman gold-flecked glassware jewels ended up the prized possession of a 5th century Japanese nobleman.

We don’t know when the beads got to Japan. They could have been recent purchases, or heirlooms handed down from parent to child for centuries before their burial, or they could have come to Japan along with the many Chinese and Korean immigrants who became naturalized Japanese and held important positions at the Yamato court during the Kofun period (250-538 A.D.). (Kofun, incidentally, is the word for the burial mounds of royalty and aristocracy that characterize the period, like the one in which the Roman jewels were found.)

It’s also eminently possible that they made it to 5th century Nagaoka via standard trade routes between China, Korea and Japan. It was an established stop, thanks to its convenient proximity to navigable rivers. In fact, two centuries later the ancient city of Nagaoka-kyō, part of the modern city of Nagaoka, would be made the capital of Japan (from 784 to 794) because Emperor Kammu thought the new location would make trade to and from the capital easier. That theoretical advantage turned out to be a major disadvantage in practice. Constant flooding of those rivers drove the Emperor to move the capital again, to Kyoto this time.

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Mammoth field found in Serbian coal mine

Friday, June 22nd, 2012

Archaeologists excavate Drmno coal mine pitWorkers digging at the Drmno coal strip mine in Kostolac, eastern Serbia on Monday, June 11th encountered the remains of a large woolly mammoth about 20 yards underground. They stopped work — the digging machines had already damaged the remains — and contacted archaeologists at the nearby Roman site of Viminacium asking them to come take over. A torrential downpour Monday afternoon delayed the archaeologists’ visit, but when they arrived on Tuesday morning, they found that the rain had revealed the remains of four other mammoths.

It’s the first discovery of its kind in Serbia. Individual mammoths have been found before, including one in 2009 at the same site. That one was a southern mammoth, a much older furless relative of the woollies. The southern mammoth, a female that researchers named Vika, is up to a million years old and is thought to have drowned on the banks of the Pannonian Sea, a shallow sea that dried up in the Pleistocene about 600,000-200,000 years ago.

Mammoth bones discovered at DrmnoBy the time the woolly mammoths roamed the area (they died out around 10,000 years ago), it was the delta of the prehistoric Great Morava River. The five mammoths discovered this month were located more than 30 feet above Vika’s find spot. They may have all died at once in the same place, killed by a natural catastrophe like a flash flood, they may have died at different times in the same place, or they may have been carried to the spot by torrential waters.

It will be at least six months before all the bones are excavated, and archaeologists believe there may be more to be discovered. Once they’re out of the ground, it will be many years before all the research is published that will tell us exactly how old they are and how they died. There was some excited speculation when the find was first announced that this might be the first mammoth graveyard ever discovered, a place to which mammoths traveled long distances just to die there as modern elephants do, but at this point there is no evidence whatsoever for this idea.

It’s an important and rare find even without the mammoth graveyard glamour. Studying the remains of the mammoths and the field could provide new information about the flora and fauna of the Balkan ice age. The owners of the strip mine, Serbia’s national power company EPS, have stopped all operations at the Drmno mine to allow archaeologists to work unimpeded.

Mammoth bones in the Drmno coal strip mine

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Polish Museum of America gets stolen artifacts back

Thursday, June 21st, 2012

Thaddeus Kosciuszko letterThe FBI announced Wednesday that they have returned more than 120 important historical artifacts and documents that were stolen decades ago from the Polish Museum of America (PMA). The artifacts, including letters going as far back as 1646, correspondence to and from Polish kings, documents with massive royal seals still attached, letters written by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon Bonaparte and Revolutionary War hero Thaddeus Kosciuszko, rare artworks, Polish military medals and Nazi World War II propaganda, have an estimated market value of $5 million. Their value to the museum and to the historical record is of course incalculable.

Stolen medals returned to PMAThe Chicago museum, one of the oldest ethnic museums in the country, has an extensive permanent collection of artifacts relating to Polish history and the history of Poles in the United States. At some point during the 1970s or 1980s, important objects began to disappear. It was done sneakily enough and the collection is large enough that nobody even guessed they were gone until years later. None of the museum employees who worked in there in the 80s are still there, so there was nothing definite to go on, just a lot of rumors and speculation.

Harlan Berk with FBI agent Michael KosanovichThe case busted wide open thanks to a Chicago coin and antiquities dealer named Harlan Berk. In late summer of 2011, unnamed youths came to his store bearing documents filled with Polish names and the signatures of Founding Fathers. They claimed they had found the items in the basement of the house they were renting and that they had many more items to sell. Berk purchased the letters and the sellers came back several times with more impressive artifacts.

Polish Museum president Maria CieslaIn a break from the see-no-evil way so many antiquities dealers operate, Berk did his own research to figure out what these documents were and where they came from. When he discovered that at some point they had been in the PMA collection, he called museum president Maria Ciesla and told her he had something of theirs.

Ciesla was ecstatic.

“I couldn’t catch my breath because this was a phone call we had dreamed about getting,” Ciesla said. “This was the first tangible proof that this was not a rumor, that these were out there, that these documents and artifacts were out there.”

“This is something that we had dreamed and hoped for for so many years,” Ciesla said. “It is so important for us to have this safely back not only for the rich Polish history but also for the wonderful American history. It is so important to the world stage.”

Polish royal sealsShe called the FBI Art Crime Team and they opened an investigation. She also arranged with Berk that he would continue buying anything the sellers brought in to the store, and then he’d turn them over to the museum which would reimburse him the purchase cost. In October of 2011, the sellers got greedy. The papers with the royal seals looked so fancy that they thought they could make a killing selling them at auction rather than just settling for Berk’s price. Fearing that the objects might get dispersed, the FBI stepped in.

The sellers promptly agreed to hand over everything they had left. The FBI discovered that the house they were renting was owned by the mother of a former curator at the PMA. The identities of the curator and his or her mother have not been released. It would certainly explain how so many precious artifacts could just walk away without anyone realizing it if the museum curator was the thief. It reminds me of the exploits of presidential inauguration expert, liar and thief Barry Landau, who used his exalted reputation as a cover for years of stealing.

No criminal charges will be filed. Museum officials can’t say for sure when the objects were stolen, but it was certainly more than five years ago which means the statute of limitations on the original theft has expired. The renters who stumbled on this treasure in the basement won’t be charged with transportation, sale or possession of stolen goods, probably because they’re just young and stupid rather than malicious.

Ciesla says the next step is to fully catalogue the returned artifacts. When that’s done, they will all go on exhibit together, probably within the next two years. Meanwhile the museum is asking that everyone keep their eyes open for any other Polish-intensive artifacts. There’s no telling what other gems might have been sold before the leftovers were stashed in the basement.

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